postings by Alan White

Letting the Money Changers Back in the Temple

posted by Alan White

Screen Shot 2018-02-12 at 2.36.55 PMGolden Valley Lending, Inc. is a payday lender that charges 900% interest on consumer loans sold over the internet. Golden Valley relies on the dubious legal dodge of setting up shop on an Indian reservation and electing tribal law in its contracts to evade state usury laws. In April 2017 the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau filed an enforcement action asserting that Golden Valley and three other lenders were engaged in unfair debt collection practices because they violated state usury laws, and also failed to disclose the effective interest rates, violating the federal Truth in Lending law (enacted in 1969).  Screen Shot 2018-02-12 at 2.35.39 PM

 Mick Mulvaney, President Trump’s interim appointee to direct the CFPB, has now undone years of enforcement staff work by ordering that the enforcement action be dropped.  The advocacy group Allied Progress offers a summary of Mulvaney’s special interest in protecting payday lenders, in South Carolina and in Congress, and the campaign contributions with which the payday lenders have rewarded him.

 

 

Student loans - the debt collector contracts

posted by Alan White

Twelve senators have just written EWKHto Education Secretary Betsy DeVos questioning why the Education Department continues to award lucrative contracts to debt collection firms, and criticizing the seriously misaligned incentives embedded in those contracts.

While most federal student loan borrowers deal with loan servicing companies like PHEAA, Navient and Nelnet, defaulting borrowers in an unlucky but sizeable minority (roughly 6.5 million) have their loans assigned to debt collectors like Collecto, Inc., Pioneer Credit Recovery, and Immediate Credit Recovery Inc. Borrowers assigned to collection firms immediately face collection fees of 25% added on to their outstanding debt. The collection firms harvest hundreds of millions of dollars in fees, mostly from federal wage garnishments, tax refund intercepts, and new consolidation loans borrowers take out to pay off old defaulted loans. Wage garnishments and tax refund intercepts are simply involuntary forms of income-based repayment, programs that could be administered by servicers without adding massive collection fees to student debt. Similarly, guiding defaulted borrowers to consolidation loans, and putting them into income-driven repayment plans, are services that servicing contractors can and do provide, at much lower cost. In short, the debt collector contracts are bad deals for student loan borrowers and bad deals for taxpayers.

 According to a Washington Post story, one of the collection firms to be awarded a contract this year had financial ties to Secretary DeVos, although she has since divested those ties. In other news, the current administration apparently reinstated two collection firms fired under the prior administration for misinforming borrowers about their rights. More in-depth analysis of the collection agency contract issue by Center for American Progress here.

Student loans - the other debt crisis

posted by Alan White
Screen Shot 2018-01-26 at 11.21.36 AM
Brookings Institute 2018

In a low unemployment economy, an entire generation is struggling, and millions are failing, to repay student loan debt. As many as 40% of ALL borrowers recently graduating are likely to default over the life of their student loans, according to a recent Brookings Institute analysis. Total outstanding student loan debt is approaching 1.5 trillion dollars, exceeding credit card debt, exceeding auto loan debt. Two other key points from the Brookings analysis: 1) for-profit schools remain the primary driver of high student loan defaults, and 2) black college graduates default at five times the rate of white college graduates, due to persistent unemployment, higher use of for-profit colleges and lower parental income and assets.

The rising delinquency (11% currently) and lifetime default rates are all the more disturbing given that federal student loan rules, in theory, permit all borrowers to repay based on a percentage of their income. Most student loans are funded by the U.S. Treasury, but administered by private contractors: student loan servicers. Study after study has found that student loan borrowers are systematically assigned to inappropriate payment plans,  yet the U.S. Education Department continues renewing contracts with these failing servicers. The weird public-private partnership Congress has created and tinkered with since the 1965 Higher Education Act is broken.

Unmanageable student loan debt will saddle a generation of students with burdens that will slow or halt them on the path to prosperity. Student loan collectors have supercreditor powers, to garnish wages and seize tax refunds without going to court, to charge collection fees up to 40%, to deny graduates access to transcripts and job licenses, and to keep pursuing debts, zombie-like, even after borrowers go through bankruptcy and discharge other debts. Recent graduates cannot get mortgages to buy homes, even if they are not in default, because their student loan payments are taking such a bite out of their monthly incomes. State legislatures have piled on educational requirements for a variety of entry-level jobs (nurse's aides, child care workers, teachers, etc.) while cutting state funding for public colleges and increasing tuition: unfunded job mandates. Finally, the combination of high debt and the harsh consequences of default are widening the racial wealth and income gaps.

Current reform proposals would make a bad situation worse. For example, it is difficult to see how increasing the percentage of income required for income-based repayment plans will help student borrowers, nor how extending the repayment period before loan retirement would reduce defaults. What is needed instead is to 1) deal with the for-profit school problem, 2) restore the state-level commitment to funding public colleges, 3) fix the broken federal student loan servicer contracting, 4) rethink the collection and bankruptcy regime for student loans and 5) repeal the student loan tax, i.e. the above-cost interest rates college graduates pay to the Treasury. Among other things. More on these themes in later posts.

Trump's Bank Regulators: More Swamp Creatures

posted by Alan White

Following his appointment of Steven Mnuchin as Treasury Secretary, the President has nominated Joseph Otting, former CEO of OneWest Bank, to be the chief federal bank regulator as head of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. The OCC is theMnuchinprotest bank cop for the nation's largest banks. The OCC determines whether banks are taking too many risks with depositor and taxpayer money, and is charged with preventing failures of banks that are too big too fail, in other words, with preventing the next financial crisis.

OneWest Bank was founded by Treasury Secretary Mnuchin in 2009  primarily to acquire, and foreclose, thousands of troubled mortgage loans made by the failed subprime lender IndyMac. Otting served as CEO of OneWest from 2010 until 2015. The President's two leading bank regulators made considerable fortunes by running this very unusual bank, relying on some big-time government funding.

IndyMac had specialized in "nonprime" mortgages, including no-doc interest-only loans and other toxic products, that failed massively in the foreclosure crisis. IndyMac was the first large federally-regulated bank to fail and be bailed out by the FDIC in 2008.

The California Reinvestment Coalition determined from several Freedom of Information Act requests that the FDIC will pay OneWest $2.4 billion for foreclosure losses on the IndyMac loans. Housing counselors in California identified OneWest as one of the most ruthless and difficult banks to deal with in trying to negotiate foreclosure alternatives on behalf of homeowners. In 2011 OneWest signed a consent decree with the federal banking agencies, neither admitting nor denying the agency's findings that OneWest had routinely falsified court documents in foreclosure cases, the practice known as robosigning. In his Senate confirmation hearing last week, Otting insisted that the regulators' findings of OneWest misconduct were a "false narrative." False or not, OneWest foreclosures, and its deal with the FDIC, do seem to have proven very profitable. Bloomberg estimates that Mnuchin made $200 million from the sale of OneWest in 2015, and Otting earned about $25 million in compensation and severance in his final year at OneWest.

OneWest was acquired by CIT group, one of the few banks that did not repay the taxpayers for their 2008 TARP bailout--the bank filed bankruptcy in 2009, stiffing the taxpayers for $2.3 billion. The bankruptcy reorganization and the shedding of CIT's debt allowed CIT to return to profitability and eventually fund its purchase of OneWest from Mnuchin and his partners.

photo credit Walt Mancin Pasadena Star-News

Foreclosure Crisis Update

posted by Alan White

As the subprime foreclosure crisis grinds down slowly (there are still roughly 3 million pre-crisis subprime mortgages outstanding, many of them delinquent), and the HAMP program sunsets, the time has come to appraise the total damage done. In the ten years from 2007 through the end of 2016, about 6.7 million foreclosure sales were completed, and another 2 million or so short sales and deeds-in-lieu of foreclosure brought the total home losses to about 8.7 million, according to HOPE NOW.

Subprime mortgages accounted for 2 million of those foreclosure sales and perhaps another 500,000 of the stressed sales. The 2.5 million total home losses roughly matches predictions made at the onset of the crisis, and exceed by a considerable number the total number of subprime mortgages made to first-time home buyers from 2000 to 2007. In other words, subprime mortgages subtracted more than they added to home ownership.

The pre-crisis loans are by no means all resolved. About one million active mortgage loans were modified under the HAMP program, meaning that interest rates and payments were reduced for up to five years. Many of those mortgages will face steep rate and payment increases in the coming years, and many are also in negative equity, making sale or refinancing difficult or impossible. A total of around 8 million mortgages were modified under various programs at some point, although a significant portion of those later ended up among the 8 million home losses. The good news is that the number of homes whose mortgage exceeds the market value (underwater or negative equity) has declined from 30% of homes to fewer than 8%. The bad news is that just under 8% of homes are still underwater, a precarious situation that remains historically unprecedented.

These stats and many others can be found in an excellent new monthly housing finance data compendium from the Urban Institute.

$45 Million for Stay Violations

posted by Alan White

How much in punitive damages is enough to punish unlawful conduct and deter its repetition? $45 million was one bankruptcy court's opinion, in the case of a wrongful home foreclosure and eviction in knowing violation of the automatic stay.

The court described the plaintiff-debtors’ treatment by defendant Bank of America as Kafkaesque, and found their deeply emotional testimony (one of them attempted suicide during the ordeal) completely credible, awarding more than $1 million in actual damages for the loss of housing and emotional distress. The court also noted that Bank of America had repeatedly settled cases with federal and state regulators for hundreds of millions, and even billions, of dollars, in recognition of serious and repeated compliance failures, including some related directly to servicing home mortgages.  

The fascinating 107-page opinion grapples at length with the dilemma of awarding enough punitive damages to effectively deter the defendant while avoiding an unseemly windfall to the plaintiffs. The solution: the decision awards $40 of the $45 million punitive award to consumer advocacy organizations and the five public California law schools. Citing an Ohio case, state statutes and several law review articles, the court proposes this split award technique as an appropriate step forward in the federal common law of §362(k) punitive damages. An interesting appeal is sure to follow.

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